Mrs. Leonard Schools Punk: You’re Not That Important

My first best friend, Tim Leonard, a boy wedged in the middle of a pack of ten siblings, grew up a Catholic in a big, rambling house that teemed with life and always felt more crowded than any scene in a Bruegel painting. My parents, then youthful and aspirational white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs!), moved in across the street.

I was born with at least two—nobody counted; there were almost certainly more—silver spoons in my mouth. The Leonard kids had to share the spoon, which was not made of silver but of some other dubious ore.

Mrs. Leonard and Carolyn Poplett were also best friends: Mrs. Leonard, a devout, mass-attending Catholic of Irish descent, and Carolyn, a migrant rebel from North Carolina, from a family of hillbillies, of Scotch-Irish descent, who by an abundance of natural grace, grew into her full promise, a great Southern lady dwelling comfortably among Yankees.

Carolyn Poplett

While rearing two sons[1], Carolyn also wrote books about the formative years of feminism, in eras before feminism got its name. She wrote a book about the early 20th century suffragist Grace Wilbur Trout. She wrote another book about the women of the Nineteenth Century Club[2], women who pioneered America’s first social safety net when men of station were too busy trying to invent new businesses and too little concerned with the social consequences of building business empires. They mostly cared about their image and their families and were otherwise willing to exploit anybody and everybody[3] except possibly people who attended the same church or were members of the same country club.

Carolyn was and—at ninety years of age today—still is an exemplary model of femininity who also happens to be a second-wave feminist, albeit a feminist who never once dreamed of burning her brassiere.

As a young child growing up, my mother endured poverty which is unimaginable to a great many people in America today, at least, any family or individual blessed to have a home and to live outside of poverty or suffering from the trauma of sudden or extreme, intimate losses of life or dignity.

Carolyn came of age in the great depression. She and her surviving siblings moved from home to home, forced to move most likely because my grandfather was perpetually broke or out of work. My grandfather—I imagine only out of sheer necessity—inadvertently embittered his eldest son, almost for life, when he took my uncle Bob’s pet dog, Jake, a bluetick hound, a breed prized for its fearlessness (mountain men used them to hunt black bears), to sell it for cash. Uncle Bob and my mother and most of my aunts and uncles, then children, were living in the mountains or likely a “holler”, in a cabin, when two of their siblings starved to death for lack of food.

She reached her maturity as did all of her siblings with the burden of survivor’s guilt. I am sure it was very much intact by the time Carolyn and Mrs. Leonard bonded. I am sure it was an essential fact for the tightness of that bond.

For, you see, Mrs. Leonard herself birthed two children, her two eldest boys, Bill and Mike, who died from the complications of muscular dystrophy by the time they were twenty[4].

That alone was sufficient to explain why Carolyn might sometimes cross the street to the Leonard’s to wash dishes after the family assembled together and had their meal. The Leonard’s had it rough. It resonated so deeply with my mother that of her the neighbors said:

Even the nuns gave up on the Leonards.

Meaning, pointedly, that my mother never gave up on her friend.

From Mrs. Leonard I learned one of the most abiding lessons in my life. As the bratty WASP kid with the two spoons, I complained to her one day that her entire brood had decided to pick on me on one particular lazy, hot summer day, merely for the sport of it, the kind that sheer boredom inspires. We were out of school; we had all day to play and get into mischief; there was no reason to have a single concern. Mrs. Leonard was lugging bag after bag of groceries out of the back of a full-length Buick station wagon into the house with indifferent help from a few of her children.

I uttered my complaint while she crossed over the front porch to enter the house through the front screen door. Without breaking stride, she answered, “That’s too bad.”

That was it. Many years later, decades later, when I remembered that incident, I had to smile. Fundamentally, it was hilarious. Mrs. Leonard with a passel of daily challenges could hardly feign concern. I doubt she had even a fleeting impulse to console me. I am in fact quite convinced she did not. For this Thanksgiving, I vow never forget that sometimes all an adult should tell a child, whether their own kids or the child of their best friend, whether their spouse, another adult, or a co-worker:

That’s too bad.

God bless you, Mrs. Leonard. Thank you for schooling this punk.

[1] According to Carolyn, “you rear children and you raise cattle”.

[2] The 19th Century Club is a short block and a half walk from my current residence here in Oak Park, Illinois

[3] Cast your mind back to the age of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and General Motors, people and institutions which were not always “nice”.

[4] An outstanding fact of their bond was that neither my grandparents or Mr. and Mrs. Leonard practiced birth-control.

Frightening! Hillary and Hubby Return To Haunt Another Deplorable Election

In the Donald’s world, we’re all useful idiots.

Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand,
“The Shot Heard Round the World”

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (HRC) deplorables remark from way back in 2016 is—even more obviously today—the most deplorable blunder that ever shot out of her mouth.

As utterances go, it was the most like “the shot heard round the world”, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand which triggered a sequence of events that led to World War I. It had the same impact as a bullet shot from an assassin’s gun; only Hillary’s bullet wasn’t heard around the world as much as it went around the world, like a space capsule or a weather satellite, and kept going until it lodged itself into Hillary’s backside1.

It was a self-inflicted wound, a point of fact that nobody can deny. Hillary’s shot, in the scope of U.S. and world politics, was every bit as monumental as the original shot, the one that started the first World War, for the magnitude of its effect. A terribly savvy or perspicacious person—not necessarily clairvoyant but prone to gamble—could have dashed out to a betting parlor on the day Hillary blundered with her deplorable “deplorables” remark, put her life savings all on the Donald winning in 2016, and, on that single bet, would have earned enough of a bundle to retire on (in the Hamptons).

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic [sic], you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?


The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric2.

Excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s “Basket of Deplorables” Speech on Sept. 9, 2016

From that teensy, weensy, phrase, “basket of deplorables”, unmistakably hearkening back to the day when Romneys “binders full of women” became a viral sensation3, politically, HRC was dead, hoisted by her own petard as people like to say, more dead than Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Only poor, old Hillary, bless her heart, lacked the presence of mind to realize how defining a moment that was.

Sadly, her second deplorable act was to not exit quietly from political theater because dead is a very difficult state to recover from. So, like any old fighter past his prime who just can’t give up and keeps foolishly returning to the ring for one more bruising, Hillary did just that: she placed an appearance at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, tainting the proceedings with her washedupedness and making it a billion times worse by bringing her husband, William “Can’t keep his junk in his pants” Jefferson “Never met a pedophile whose plane he could board only once” Clinton. Unfortunately, that made a LOT of people think, maybe the Donald ain’t so bad.

It’s not right to call anybody a name, ever, not even if you are Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s not Christian to judge according to the Bible:

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Romans 12:19, King James Version

It’s not even good Buck Owens:

Refrain from Buck Owens’s hit
“Streets of Bakersfield”4

Human beings are not—to the extent it concerns the moral condition of the soul—supposed to get into the judging business. Hillary judged (or just as badly strung together words in a phrase that sounded like a judgement) and that was her sin.

If Donald Trump is re-elected, it won’t be entirely his fault. Hillary Clinton, by refusing to ride off into the sunset and instead turning up at her party’s national convention, reached over the aisle to President Trump to lend him a hand.

Persona non grata: Waxy Duo of a Fallen Dynasty

The DNC apparently was okay dragging Hillary and Bill, two relics of a fallen dynasty, out onto the virtual stage of its convention. For that, it is implicated, also reaching over the aisle when instead it should have relegated those two to Madame Tussaud’s.

Hillary’s not a bad egg, no worse than you or I. The thing that should strike terror in our hearts is that anyone of us—including all of us who vote—could chillingly have a myopia as great as or greater than Hillary’s.

In Scripture, you find passages that refer to blindness both as a medical condition and a condition of the soul. It is a powerful metaphor used in different ways at different times. Sometimes, often, the eye is not directed at the world but inward. Sometimes the eye represents feelings as in envy (a little bit like the expression, “to be the apple of someone’s eye”). There are several instances of the phrase “scales falling from the eyes”, which gives suggests that one might have unwittingly walked through life blindly only to suddenly “see the light”. So, in that instant, only then does a person realize that while they may have had physical sight, all the while they lacked knowledge of one’s self in relation to the world. In the Book of Matthew there is this:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 7:3 King James Version
Too late or too soon?

The thing about the Donald is that he is every bit as blind as dear old Hillary. Undoubtedly much more so5. The thing about us is that we have a lot to account for ourselves. Otherwise, how else can we explain how we, Democrats and Republicans, are on the cusp of re-electing, Donald “Moved on her like a bitch” J. “She was married.” Trump? I cannot say in good faith—despite the conversation recorded on the Billy Bush tape—that Donald’s a pussy grabber. I’ll tell you what though. He sure does brag a lot.

[1] A euphemism.

[2] Time. “Read Hillary Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ Remarks on Trump Supporters.” Accessed November 1, 2020.

[3] “‘Binders Of Women’ Becomes Viral Sensation.” Accessed November 1, 2020.

[4] Moore, Joe. “Homer Joy, 'Streets of Bakersfield" Songwriter Dies.” Accessed November 1, 2020.

[5] Salon. “Yale Psychiatrist Backs Mary Trump’s Assessment: The President ‘Is Mentally Incapable of Leading,’” July 30, 2020.

How to be Selfish: A Patriot’s Guide

Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”

The way I was brought up there was always a taboo against any kid perceived as selfish. I’m not sure what other options existed or if the idea of enlightened self-interest had already shot across the horizon in an arced, meteoric trajectory, flamed out, and reduced itself to half molten rock.

Even when it wasn’t spelled out, everyone knew, a selfish kid was going to hell. It might take sixty years or more of walking to and fro upon this earth for his fate to unfold but he was going to hell sure as shootin’.

It had every bit the aspect of a scientific fact. Stories of this ilk were prevalent. A child who put his hand in the cookie jar and tried to grab too many cookies, would get his hand stuck, and only get it back after an an embarrassing intervention by fire fighters who arrived at the kid’s grammar school in super exaggerated fashion riding on an enormous, glowing red fire engine, if not a hook & ladder, their sirens wailing, to free the kid’s hand with hog grease or a precision tap on the glass surface of the jar with the dull end of the axe head. A selfish kid who got caught like this—not with his hand in the cookie jar but with his hand stuck in the cookie jar—could literally die of embarrassment.

You didn’t want to be a “ball hog” or take too many swings at the plate. You didn’t want to be the kid who was raised his hand in class so often he had to brace the one hand with the other. You didn’t want to chew a stick of gum on the sly; either you had a stick for every person in the whole dang class or the teacher was going to find you out and pillory you with a tongue lashing in front of your peers that would make you wish you could roll yourself up into a ball of spit and dehydrate.

From as far back as 1945, science started to toy with the idea of a “selfish gene”, a gene whose behavior imitates the human psychological attribute of “selfishness”—inasmuch as it privileges transmission of its genetic material to the fitness of the host organism and its species. By this definition, a “selfish” gene is not a good gene, not a team player, so to speak.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the most influential reference text for the treatment of mental illness in the United States—identifies narcissistic behavior as a personality disorder. In other words, it is a malignancy and detrimental to individuals and society alike. It lists among its traits1:

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerate achievements and talents
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believe that they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
  • Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Insist on having the best of everything – for instance, the best car or office

There are numerous psychiatrists who have spoken publicly about their belief that our 45th president suffers from Narcissitic Personality Disorder.

The mental condition he suffers most from is formally known as a severe instance of “narcissistic personality disorder,” which is well established in the psychiatric literature.  The core problem in this disorder is the failure in childhood and beyond to develop an inner sense of worth or self-esteem.  This makes one’s worth entirely dependent upon admiration from others2

Dr. John Zinner, psychoanalyst and clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine
#45 mocking a disabled reporter

Dr. Zinner goes on to explain why the president might deserve our pity.

To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feelings, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage.  He is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake or failing.  His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation.

These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive, for reasons that are also part of his disturbance.  Especially, these include an extreme lack of empathy, compassion, authentic guilt, remorse, or, fundamentally, caring about the other person(s).  Donald Trump genuinely cares for no one but himself.  He lacks the capacity to feel regret or to avoid the harm he can cause to others.  He can derive a sadistic pleasure for the hurt he may create.

Yet there is nothing that makes President Trump so utterly different from ourselves. How often have we heard the expression that people “vote their pocketbooks?” And what does that mean? When we vote our pocketbooks our voting choice is dictated by our best guess of which candidate will benefit ourselves exclusively, irrespective of how it benefits our neighbors.

Even with my patchy understanding of the New Testament and a patchier understanding of Corinthians, it is clear in Corinthians 1:12 that the metaphor of the body—and more particularly Christ’s body—with its complementary members (eyes, ears, hands, feet) insists on the idea that all of these members have an essential and distinct role to play. They are integral and without them you don’t have a whole and complete body. So, by the same token, the spiritual gifts that God gives to man are all pieces of a common organism.

This vision postulates a radically different notion of self. For example, we might say that the self is Christ’s body, something much bigger and more worthy of esteem than the life of any person on its own. With this notion of self, my self interest is in the vitality of all the parts that make up Christ’s body. It invites me to replace the idea of my body parts for the body parts represented by the image of Christ’s body. Once I accept that invitation, my concept of self changes utterly; it is no longer restricted to my physical self. To the extent that I subscribe to this vision, I am profoundly transformed.

A funny thing about this interpretation is that it serves to demonstrate how perfect a document is our Bill of Rights, especially if you are inclined to interpret it as a bold embodiment of the best of Christ’s teachings, stripped of ecclesiastical taint, off-putting to some, in purely secular terms. That is what makes it a masterpiece. What is the fifth amendment’s protection of a citizen’s right to due process if not a secular expression of the Christian ideal to “Do unto others…”?

More profoundly, the Bill of Rights enshrines the complex notions surrounding freedom of will and the necessity to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, preserving for us the choice to do good and the choice to serve others. For if good will was mandated, what could it possibly mean? Instead it reserves for each one of us the right to seek our own salvation.

This is delightfully in evidence in the formulation of an enlightened self-interest, an idea which came fast on the heels of the Enlightenment and was perfectly expressed by the famous observer of early American culture, the Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville3.

The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Enlightened self-interest is a brand of selfishness well established in this country. It is based entirely on the notion of volunteerism. Thankfully it is alive in America today. I think of former president Jimmy Carter, for example, his wife, Rosyln, and their committment to Habitat for Humanity4.

#39, age 95, at Habitat for Humanity construction site

And here is Jimmy, at the age of 95, reminding us:

One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others

It provokes an interesting thought. When President Trump retires, one wonders what he will do. Play golf, build casinos, or build houses for the needy?

[1]: Mayo Clinic. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Symptoms and Causes.” Accessed October 19, 2020.

[2]: B, and y X. Lee. “‘Loser’: A Leading Psychiatrist Takes a Detailed Look into Trump’s Narcissistic Pathologies.” Accessed October 19, 2020.

[3]: “Enlightened Self-Interest (Informational Paper),” February 16, 2006.

[4]: Carlson, Adam. “‘It’s Hard to Live Until You’re 95,’ Jimmy Carter Says: How Rosalynn & His Faith Keep Him Going.”, October 15, 2019.

Some of My Best Friends Are Roman Catholic – Part II

Roman Catholics were only given sanctuary in this country through the glorious, magnanimous vision of tolerance advanced by Protestants, the founders of this country, starting with the Pilgrims, those outlaws who broke away from that other high-ceremony faith, the Church of England, whose faith created the intellectual nexus for the U.S. Constitution.

It was the Puritans, a Protestant sect, and the Calvinist tenets that they brought with them to the New World that informed it.

Calvin’s tenet of the “total depravity of man”, for example, bolstered a wariness of absolute power (later formulated by Lord Acton with the expression “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) and is precisely the basis of our system of checks and balances. It emphatically did not come from a high-ceremony branch of the Christian faith.

This brief history goes a long way to explain why the word “protest” is so unessential and foreign to a man like Attorney General Barr because the word “protest” is not part of his faith, the Roman Catholic faith, at least not in the same way it is literally built into the (Protest)ant faith.

How else might one explain why at Hillside College a scant few weeks ago in September, he felt “at liberty” to diss the Bill of Rights and suggest that it was a lesser part of the constitution—it is not—and perhaps even expendable. Observe his choice of words below, particularly “more important to securing liberty than the Bill of Rights”. Says, who? And secondly, “the Framers did not think it needed an express enumeration of rights.” Perhaps not, but the thirteen colonies had to ratify the U.S. Constitution to enact it and the colonies only ratified it with the inclusion of the Bill of Rights.

The Attorney General’s point of view is heretical. To place less emphasis on the Bill of Rights ignores the essential fact that amendments have no second-tier status and are immediate, legitimate, and integral components of the Constitution.

The rule of law is the lynchpin of American freedom.  And the critical guarantee of the rule of law comes from the Constitution’s structure of separated powers.  The Framers recognized that by dividing the legislative, executive, and judicial powers— each significant, but each limited—they would minimize the risk of any form of tyranny.  That is the real genius of the Constitution, and it is ultimately more important to securing liberty than the Bill of Rights.  After all, the Bill of Rights is a set of amendments to the original Constitution, which the Framers did not think needed an express enumeration of rights.

To suggest otherwise, especially for an Attorney General, mocks the rule of law which the AG identifies in the same quote as “the lynchpin of American freedom”. The rule of law very certainly means that the entire contents of the Bill of Rights, as much as any other part of the constitution, takes precedence over any ideas a Federal official, the Attorney General especially, might wish to impose in the name of good government. Conventional wisdom credits the Magna Carta as the preeminent legal precedent establishing the rule of law. Conventional wisdom credits the Bill of Rights with enshrining the rule of law, most particularly in the fifth amendment concerning due process.

In particular, we might say that the Magna Carta calls for the rule of law in opposition to the rule of unreasonable men. Furthermore, the rule of law is to be secured by an attachment to the due process of law.

How does our AG reconcile his haughty attitude to the Bill of Rights with his lynchpin remark? You can’t. Attorney General Barr is first and foremost our country’s protector of the Constitution yet he believes in some parts of it more than others. That’s like a baseball umpire saying, “I believe in first base, and I believe in second base, but I really don’t think third base is any way near as important.”

The other issue that our Attorney General has with the Bill of Rights is the issue of “choice”. Not just in the extremely narrow sense of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade but in a sense of choice with vastly broader implications. It is impossible to understand a single thing about this nation without choice. Choice is our national obsession. We were fated to fret about it from the time these words—attributed erroneously to Thomas Jefferson—were first recorded[1]:

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The late Charlton Heston, actor and NRA president, “From my Cold, Dead Hands”

Thomas Jefferson or not, we all believe in this concept of “eternal vigilance”. We find evidence of it all around us, the extreme zeal with which gun owners react to real and perceived encroachments on the right to bear arms provides one shining example.

The right to vote is arguably our most sacrosanct right. It is all about choice. There is no democracy without it.

Relative to his concern with the same old bogeymen that kept J. Edgar Hoover awake at night (communism, Marxism, terrorism, ism, ism, ism) the attorney general is completely unconcerned with our guarantees to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. This is baffling beyond words. The whole point of our country was to secure these freedoms, the right to free speech, freedom of the press, and protest.

So I’m afraid it really is true, the authoritarian aspect of his Roman Catholic faith blinds him to the virtue of our “sacred” personal freedom rights. There is simply no other way to explain how he could authorize law enforcement officers in riot gear to clear Lafayette Park in advance of President Trump’s photo opportunity (pardon my French but that looked an awful lot like pandering) in front of St. John’s Church. One officer attacked a defenseless journalist close to where the Attorney General would soon witness the President hoist up the Bible.

Choice is also a hellish thing. A perfectly good idea of hell is to stand in the refrigerated aisle of a grocery store and try to decide which carton of orange juice to buy. Or do you always know you want the one with extra calcium and no-pulp?

We engage so passionately in the protection of our freedoms, the mere idea of choice starts to look like a national addiction.

As an addiction, if you accept the hypothesis, it makes the U.S. voting public extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation. This is a consideration for every voting citizen. The idea that a fixation on choice can and will turn us into useful idiots. 

It is easy to understand why “Obamacare”[2], a word invented to inspire contempt, is frequently spoken of at least by vote-seekers as though the word itself connoted pure evil. Part of that animus, you can bet is that “Obamacare” took away a choice: get on health care or pay a penalty.

The contempt for “Obamacare” highlights the deeply curious oddity of the American obsession with choice. On the one hand, the U.S. voting public acquiesced a long time ago to Federal and state laws which obligate every driver living in the country to purchase automobile insurance. Yet, “Obamacare”, though it has succeeded in reducing the number of persons in the United States who live without coverage in the country today, is reviled. This is the American viscera at work.

The good thing about visceral reactions is that they often play out. As often happens, more Americans will eventually come to regard “Obamacare” more generously, as having succeeded in forcing more individuals to take responsibility for their health, the same way we force motorists to purchase automobile insurance. It is not unreasonable to argue that forcing people to take better care of themselves (so the rest of us don’t have to) is a rational compromise, not so much a capricious abrogation of individual freedom, possibly a reasonable if not great precedent for democracy, especially when democracy itself only improves when voters are physically and mentally fit not just to cast votes but with their vote to make informed and reasoned choices.

[1] “Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty (Spurious Quotation),” accessed October 2, 2020, /site/research-and-collections/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-spurious-quotation.

[2] Also known as the Affordable Health Care Act

A Case for Authenticity in the Fake News Pandemic

Justin Townes Earle

Authenticity is the absence of any difference between persona, the way we project ourselves, and our internal state of mind. It has to do with not just how we project ourselves but in how much our projections are reflected back to us from others. When that is achieved, you have a perfect example of success.

On the surface, authenticity seems to place a person at a far distance from the ten personality disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In any event, authenticity seems like a worthy pursuit[1]Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. … Continue reading:

In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of actions. Aristotle viewed ethics in terms of people’s pursuit of the ‘‘higher good.’’ Specifically, he proposed that the highest good is ‘‘activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most complete virtue in a complete life’’. Such pursuits are intimately tied with people’s well‐being (eudaemonia) which is attained by performing activities that reflect one’s true calling (self-realization).

Artists and writers eagerly strive for authenticity as an essential and unavoidable part of their craft. It is probably true—to riff on the bard—that if you were not born with authenticity, you have to achieve authenticity, and, if you cannot achieve authenticity you had better hope it is thrust upon you.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare

In the case of any kind of artist, a writer, a poet, a potter, or a a glass blower, you want all of them: to be born authentic, to achieve more of it, and to have it thrust upon you (to riff on Joseph Heller). Yet, teachers, lawyers and mothers are artists too. All of us are artists in our own way. Authenticity is always in short supply.

In the case of avowed artists, we find many fine examples having to do with “putting yourself out there”.

Lou Reed is an artist I admire for pursuing authenticity with extreme angst, costs be damned. He kept on remaking himself with almost every album he produced, paranoid that popularity was death to his art[2]DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.. To be a “sell-out” is the rock star’s favorite damnation.

If you are a country music aficionado, you know there is an evergreen sub-genre dedicated to the defense of “real” country. It is legitimately an industry obsession. Country My Ass is Dale Watson Jr.’s lament with a not-too-subtle dig reserved for Taylor Swift. In Dark Bar and Juke Box, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters, protests that “you won’t find no country on country radio”. This time the digs on Toby Keith:

Give me a dark bar and a jukebox over that radio.
Yeah, Toby just don't cut it, give me Haggard, give me Coe.
And i'm tired of watching Nashville and it's washed up fashion show
Cause you won't find no country on country radio

I muse a lot lately about Justin Townes Earle and his utterly professional demeanor on stage for a performance, handling two hecklers while continuing to tune his guitar and preparing for his next number[3]Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. It is a master class in authenticity for a guy who is stoned out of his mind. He was utterly and completely “putting himself out there”, spilling his guts on his checkered history with drug addiction. Check it out on Youtube and the comments that follow, speculating whether there are two guitars playing on stage or just one. It is just one, Justin’s. It is his technique that makes it sound like two.

A dear friend turned me on to Steve Hely’s novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, a case of “imagining the future you want for yourself” if every there was[4]Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.. Every line in it will make you bust a stitch until you’re in an ambulance on a gurney on your way to the ER where you will get new stitches just so you can go home and keep reading. It is that hilarious.

The other funny thing about How I Became a Famous Novelist is its relentless skewering of the million and one ways authors go about being not wantonly inauthentic but rather ever… so… slyly… inauthentic.

The protagonist, Pete Tarslow, is more of the wanton kind. He is trying to make the jump from one fraudulent career, penning college admission essays for foreign students as a meretricious ghost writer, to a tonier and ideally more lucrative form of fraudulence: writing novels for fame. His motives are pure; among them, he wants to humiliate the gal who jilted him at her wedding.

So the author, Hely, in his bid for novelistic fame, invents a protagonist, Tarslow, who in his bid for novelistic fame, goes about it by filching tricks of the trade from already famous novelists. Meta enough for you?

Tarslow studies with keen desire the whole pantheon of published authors in search for clues to their success, every time turning up fraud. He zeroes in on “Preston Brooks”, a John Irving doppelgänger, novelist, director of a creative writing program, and author of Kindness to Birds (don’t you love it?). Of the novel Kindness, Tarslow observes:

One could spend hours parsing that intricate latticework of literary sewage: the cartoon bayou dialect, the touches of “realist” detail, the labored folksy imagery, the vague notes of spirituality and transcendence muddled together to make it palatable to anyone.

Tarslow excerpts Kindness which I repeat here so you can see what he’s talking about:

“Is they chickory in that coffee?” she bellowed, in a tired voice that still shook like a thunderclap, a calling-hounds voice.

Need I go on? Okay, I will:

“No, ma’am,” Gabriel hollered back, steadying himself against the buckboard of the Tidecraft Firebird, swaing in the swamp water that swelled and fell like the breast of a mother asleep. “No chickory, but you sure a Cajun woman asking for chickory coffee when you stuck on a patch-tar roof and more water coming up, they sayin. Now reach out your hand Mez Deveroux.”

It would be wrong were Hely not to acknowledge the self-mythological prowess of some successful authors (Hemingway and Kerouac come to mind). He doesn’t disappoint. Again the understudy, Tarslow provides an example from his mentor Preston, who has his obligatory “birth of a writer story” in the can:

Then one morning I woke up in an alley in Minot, North Dakota in the snow. I rooted around in a trash can, hoping to find an old jacket. And I found a tattered copy of Of Mice and Men. Maybe from an angel’s hand. Maybe just a lazy schoolboy. But I read it. And John Steinbeck showed me there was stronger stuff than whiskey.

Once you start to read How I Became a Successful Novelist as satire or as a lightly veiled critique of the United States Creative Writing Industry, Hely’s book reveals how—even if you look like an author, swim like an author, walk like an author, and quack like an author—underneath it all, you’re still very probably just a duck. His book freaks you out by showing you the very subtle ways we can undermine an otherwise genuine mission to achieve authenticity.

If I taught writing, I would start my class with Steve Hely’s book. I would encourage the class to write parody, heaps and heaps of it, so my students could learn what it feels like to be even every so slightly inauthentic.

For Hemingway, they might write:

A goose, separated from the flock, damn-near skimming the flat mirror surface of the lake, flew low and straight and true, in a line so straight it might make an arrow quiver.

The hope would be that, if they did enough of these, they would learn to avoid inauthenticity like COVID-19.


1 Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006.
2 DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.
3 Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010.
4 Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.